Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Exile's Return" and poetic ambition

Having decided to sell some of my thousands of books on amazon, largely in response to the dreaded credit crunch we are all experiencing, I've been trawling through old boxes and crates of books, some of which I haven't seen since my days as a secondhand bookseller in Cornwall.

One of the books I found, and have subsequently been re-reading - one of the hazards of selling books as a book-lover is the painful inability to part with some titles, at least not without reading or re-reading them first - is a slightly battered paperback edition of "Exile's Return: a literary odyssey of the 1920s" by Malcolm Cowley, first published in 1934.

Below is what I came across in "Exile's Return" last night, from page 110, and decided to post up on Raw Light, for the sake of interest and any thoughts that might follow, on the always thorny subject of reviewing poetry and being ambitious for one's own work - ignoring the typically sexist assumption of the time that any poet and/or reviewer must necessarily be male.

The comments below are roughly the same as those I have made myself, in other ways and with slightly different nuances, on poetry forums in the past, and been ridiculed for. What interests me is that I can find these sentiments in books on poetry, both in "Exile's Return" and numerous others I have come across over the years, yet when I voice the same ideas myself, I meet almost blanket disagreement from my peers. So, are those who disagree trying to hide something, from me or perhaps from themselves, or do they genuinely believe that thoughtful ambition and watchfulness in a poet is a Bad Thing?

Is it perhaps that contemporary poetry has turned away from the inherent romanticism of poetic ambition - as it was understood up until about the middle years of the twentieth century - in favour of a colder, slicker, and far more professional approach, one hedged about with serious workshop attendance and qualifications in Creative Writing, for instance? That a poet is no longer 'apprenticed to the Muse' as Malcolm Cowley puts it below, but is on a career path whose landmarks include an internet site, a blog, an MA programme, a few competition wins and the obligatory arts grant - the work itself, its deepest rigours and inspirations and origins, being no longer centre stage of a poet's career but a mere by-product of the process.

From p. 110, Exile's Return by Malcom Cowley:
If [a young poet] is called upon to review a book by Joyce or Eliot, he will say certain things he believes to be accurate: they are not the things lying closest to his heart. Secretly he is wondering whether he can, whether he should, ever be great in the Joyce or Eliot fashion. What path should he follow to reach this goal? The great living authors, in the eyes of any young man apprenticed to the Muse, are a series of questions, an examination paper compiled by and submitted to himself:

1. What problems do these authors suggest?

2. With what problems are they consciously dealing?

3. Are they my own problems? Or if not, shall I make them my own?

4. What is the Joyce solution to these problems (or the Eliot, the Pound, the Gertrude Stein, the Paul Valery solution)?

5. Shall I adopt it? Reject it and seek another master? Or must I furnish a new solution myself?

And it is as if the examiner had written: Take your time, young man. Consider all questions carefully; there is all the time in the world. Don't fake or cheat; you are making these answers for yourself. Nobody will grade them but posterity.


Bo said...

I'm so sorry you're having to do this. Parting with books is awful. I had to do it a few years ago. I got the Grimoires book too, btw. Review to follow.

Jane Holland said...

It's either this, Bo, or the oldest profession. And at my age, how much could I feasibly hope to make there?! Better the books, alas.

Glad you got the Grimoires book though. I read through it briefly myself before passing it on. Looking forward to the review!


Sorlil said...

Seems pretty much common sense to me. When I read a poetry collection my first objective is to savour and wallow-in the poetry, and if the poetry works for me then my second objective is to scour it for the how's and why's - why does the subject-matter work for me and how is the overall effect achieved. Then hopefully I'm able to try out new-learned techniques and themes in my own poetry adapted to my own style of writing.

Isn't this how we learn and hopefully progress? I assume it's the desire of every poet to write great poetry.

Lady Godiva and Me said...

Is "career' a misnomer? Although the creative writing business seems built on selling the fantasy that one could make a living at it although the evidence is that you can't. Apart from careering from one poem to the next, the only real career is the space between the last poem and the one you're working on?? And the only ambition I'll admit to is that I want the next one to be better.

It's one of those false analogies that do actual harm, like comparing it to other arts where you can benefit from formal study?

I like this bit:
So, are those who disagree trying to hide something, from me or perhaps from themselves, or do they genuinely believe that thoughtful ambition and watchfulness in a poet is a Bad Thing?

I think it points to a very dull ideal of poetry. Protexted by a blanket application of "pretentious" as the killer insult. Which in turn produces a kind of common poetry that is desperately trying hard not to say anything that might attract that term.

happy new year.
Wes pu hal!

Jane Holland said...

It ought to be the desire of every poet to write great poetry - stands to reason, surely? - but in my personal experience, when you say that on a public forum, which I have done, you - or rather I - get lampooned mercilessly for having said it. Because ambition has become a dirty word in poetry.

I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps the increasing popularity of open mics has created a corresponding slide in interest in poetry written for the page (rather than for laughs or the purposes of political agitating). So to state a desire to write great poetry, or even just to state a belief in that desire, is somehow uncool and unfair, an undeserved dent in the confidence of those who stand up to deliver their inane bleatings in the name of poetry.

I wonder too if it's tied in with the big business that is now the poetry workshop, where people of all talents are encouraged to believe that everyone can write poetry and that all poetries are equal, which necessarily begins to blot out the understanding that some people have more talent than others and that some poems are actually 'great' whilst others are only fit for the bin. The idea that some people are simply better at writing poetry than others, and that there are grades of poem, with some naturally rated higher than others, runs contrary to the basic tenet of the poetry workshop, which is a kind of revolutionary 'down with the great poets, up with the populists' regime, where everyone with a pen and a scrap of paper can create something worth listening to.

But we all know, deep down, that such ideas are nonsense. Very few people can write good poetry, let alone great poetry, and the constant aspiration to improve is what drives a natural poet forward and upward. The others can only go sideways or downward. And the latter tend to get really pissed off if someone suggests in their hearing that they're never going to amount to anything as writers. Or that writing mediocre poems again and again is not part of the poetic tradition in this country, but reflects the unpalatable fact that their writing is a hobby rather than a vocation.

So vocation and ambition are now words that get people who write poetry - as opposed to being poets - really annoyed. Because those words remind them rather too sharply and uncomfortably of the truth.

Not that I disapprove of poetry workshops. They support tutoring poets financially and they encourage people to read and write at a higher level than before. But I do disappove of this notion that everyone can write and that natural talent doesn't play into it on any scale and that the kind of ambition that acts like a thorn in the flesh of any genuinely driven poet is wrong or an act of aggression against the ranks of the mediocre or a downright lie perpetrated by someone looking to support an over-inflated ego.

And that - as Native American chiefs apparently liked to put it - is all I have to say about that.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry, Liam, my response to Sorlil's comment took so long to write that it o'er-leapt yours.

I think you hit the nail on the head though with this idea of a 'common poetry' that is trying hard not to attaract the word 'pretentious'. It is indeed a fear of striding out from the crowd that reins in so much poetry, keeps it cautiously in formation. There's a guy on the POF forums at the moment who drops in and out, a young man, whose ideas about poetry are ambitious in an old-fashioned way, and most people laugh at them, and either ignore or berate him. He stays cool and resigned to their laughter, sticks to his beliefs. I admire him for that, even while not being entirely sure that he's going about things the right way - his work is old-fashioned too - but his heart is in the right place. He still believes that poetry is something above the common way, and that is what causes the problems, I suspect. The fear of being or seeming elitist obstructs and limits too many poets who might otherwise be writing more ambitiously.

And the net result of all this? Mediocrity, predictability and dullness.

The death of the poet. The rise of the poetry-writer.

Sorlil said...

Do you think this is mainly a British hang-up? My experience on poetry forums predominated by Americans is more along the lines of you're all crap and only after several years dedicated to the craft might you one day be able to write a reasonably good poem.

Happy New Year to you and yours, by the way :)

Jane Holland said...

It might be a peculiarly British hang-up, yes.

But which forums are these that you mention?

Do you mean the writing forums where you post up poems for critique and people savage your work regardless of whether it's any good or not, or whether they have any actual experience with writing and publishing poetry?

Or are they genuine discussion forums for published - or at least serious rather than dilettante - poets?

I've never come across any of those yet, apart from POF and the now defunct Poem forum. The critique-for-everyone forums are the norm, and they tend to be so over-run with talentless, opinionated idiots that only a few hours there sends my blood pressure soaring. So I now steer clear of them.

I know I sound impatient about this, but we're currently neck-deep in an infuriating "everyone's an expert" culture, which is wonderful for social equality but means that people who genuinely know what they're doing in any given field and have both talent and experience are valued no more highly than those who've read the odd book on the subject and are good at bluffing and sounding off in public. Which is clearly nonsense, and can only end in a lowering of standards all round.

Gosh, I am feeling belligerent this week. Season of Good Will? More like the Season of Gnashing of Teeth, at least for me. Must be this cold snap ...

Bloody poets.